Rebels defy Qaddafi's fear offensive in Libya's western mountains
Zintan, a critically important town on the southern slopes of the Nafusah mountain range, has become a symbol of rebellion. It endured a barrage of rocket fire this week as Qaddafi continued punishing it.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Fifty Katyusha rockets were fired on Zintan in three days this week. They targeted its center for the first time, sparking an exodus and convincing residents that Colonel Qaddafi was determined to punish a city that has become a symbol of revolt in the western part of the country.
Zintan, a sprawling, dun-colored town embedded on the southern slopes of the Nafusah mountain range, has proved critically important to the civil war raging in Libya. Here, citizens set the example of boldly repelling Qaddafi’s attempts to bring them over to his side, refusing lucrative government bribes, and then defeating concerted military attempts to dislodge them.
Katyushas that once hit only the outskirts of town now target schools, hospitals, and homes, and tell the story of Qaddafi's intensifying efforts to maximize disruption and fear.
“Qaddafi wants people dead – he’s big crazy,” says Mohammed Zintani, a petroleum engineer-turned-rebel who appears uneasy with his rifle.
Why Zintan? “It was one of the first towns to rebel against Qaddafi,” says Mr. Zintani. “It’s a big city. [Qaddafi] wants to make other smaller towns afraid. But this is giving them more courage, more persistence – all we want is freedom.”
With a range of 12-18 miles, Katyushas are notoriously inaccurate, but often fired in bulk at general targets. One of the rockets struck the courtyard of a school, where student Ali Messaoud said he was surprised to see the walls scarred with shrapnel, and glass blown onto the desks inside.
“We were afraid because the sound was very large,” says Ali, who hid with his family during the attack.
A nearby mosque was also hit. The spray of shrapnel and shattered glass left a glinting mess on the prayer carpets inside. One Katyusha landed on the street outside the Zintan hospital; two more landed in the hospital grounds themselves. Houses in poorer areas were struck as well.
Little noticed but deadly battle
The battle waged against Qaddafi along the dramatic 90-mile-long Nafusah mountain, its steep escarpment a strip of sometimes-fertile high ground that rolls from Libya’s western border with Tunisia to south of Tripoli, has made few headlines.
This slice of Libya’s revolution has been spurred by the longstanding antagonism to Qaddafi's rule from the majority ethnic Berber, or Amazigh, tribes native to this rugged territory.
But Zintan, 90 miles from the Tunisia border and 85 miles southwest of Tripoli – and largely Arab like the rest of Libya – has become a special case of defiance.
“Because Qaddafi thinks that only eastern Libya was against him, he was very upset when we rose against him,” says a tall and thin rebel who carries a compact high-definition video camera and a satellite phone handset and goes by the nickname al-Kafordy, a well-known fighter against Italian colonial rule.
“He can’t hit us on the ground, so he hits us with rockets to make us scared,” says al-Kafordy. “He hates us because we are distracting his Army.”
Qaddafi's rebuffed overtures
And distract it Zintan has. Early after the anti-Qaddafi rebellion kicked off in mid-February, the government came on a recruiting drive to Zintan. They wanted to find soldiers to help put down the uprising gripping eastern Libya.
That effort reportedly kicked off protests, clashes with authorities that left some Zintanis dead, and finally a wider revolt. Qaddafi’s chief of security visited Zintan and then offered every family 1 million dinars (about $750,000) to ensure their loyalty to him.